Mormons travel for family history work

Avery Miyahara Harding, left, looks over family records with her third cousins in Hiroshima, Japan. (Avery Harding)

Family history takes many shapes and sizes, from DNA tests to online record searches to interviewing living relatives about their stories. Members of the LDS church, including BYU alumni, are exploring another avenue for family history research: travel.

BYU alumna and former BYUSA president Avery Miyahara Harding is currently in Japan with her husband, Brit Harding, to get in touch with her Japanese heritage. She had the opportunity to stay with some extended relatives in Hiroshima. While there, she looked at and took pictures of many undigitized family records.

“My Miyahara side are all traditionally Buddhist, and therefore we have a lot of family history work to uncover,” Harding said.

Harding and her husband were also able to understand more of her ancestors’ culture by visiting a Buddhist temple.

“Going to the Buddhist temple where my family has worshipped for generations and generations was really powerful,” Harding said. “The respect they had for our ancestors was remarkable.”

Orem resident Cindy Goodrich traveled to Slovenia because the family history records she’s looking for can’t be found online. Her mother’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from what is now Slovenia, and up until 2015 she didn’t have more than three generations on that side of her family tree.

“We’ve probably gathered about 400 names, and there’s still more,” Goodrich said.

She has made two trips to Slovenia to look through archives since 2015 and is currently in Slovenia for her third trip.

Missionary Coordinator Sister Jolyn Bushman of the BYU Family History Library said she sees cases where traveling is necessary to complete family history work, especially in certain countries or time periods, but also said technology is integral in her work.

“Now we have the internet, and we can travel the world in minutes looking for documents,” Sister Bushman said.

She also said a feeling of connection can be special when going to the country of an ancestor, even if the records can be found online.

“You do feel connected to them because you’re just there in their homeland,” Bushman said.

BYU alumnus Lynn Mortenson from Klamath Falls, Oregon found relatives while visiting ancestral homes in Denmark, where his great-grandfather emigrated from. A local museum curator connected him with an 80-year-old woman named Inga who descended from one of his great grandfather’s siblings.

While Mortenson initially didn’t expect to do much genealogical work on this trip, he hoped to foster a connection to that side of his family. It later occurred to Mortenson that he could complete his family tree more by looking into his great grandfather’s siblings’ lines, and he has since come up with 5,000 names to take to the temple.

BYU alumnus Mark Stimpson visited Belgium with his family to connect with his mother’s ancestors from the area.

Visiting Belgium made me kind of appreciate the courage it took for them to get on a boat and sail across the Atlantic to take a risk to part of a country they knew nothing about,” Stimpson said.

Stimpson also went to Belgium to understand more about what his father went through fighting during World War II.

“I’m sure he was scared to death as a young soldier,” Stimpson said as he remembered walking through the woods over the remains of foxholes and trenches. “I just wanted to get a feel for what he would have gone through.”

Sisters and BYU alumni Christine McClellan and Jen Harrington wanted to feel connected to their ancestors in the United Kingdom. They made it a family effort by assigning each of their kids an ancestor to research before going.

Their children compiled stories and biographies about the ancestors they were learning about to make the trip more real, even though most of the genealogical work had already been done.

“It felt like we kind of had more of a purpose than just trying to see as many cool things as we could,” Harrington said.

They also felt like they could relate more to the individuals whose homes and towns they were able to visit.

“They’re not just names in a book anymore,” McClellan said. “Your ancestors just seem like real people more now.”

Not everyone needs to travel overseas for family history work. Psychotherapist Cindy Nelson from Minneapolis, Minnesota went to North Dakota to understand her maternal great-grandparents.

Nelson found places where her great-grandparents lived and worked and even found people that knew them and her grandmother. The trip helped her understand some dysfunction in her family, according to Nelson.

“We will never know some things, but I do understand my family better,” Nelson said. “And it has helped heal some wounds living family members have been carrying around for decades.”

Sister Bushman said she is grateful for the opportunity she has had in the BYU Family History Library to help people understand their ancestors and fill in the gaps.

“When you make that connection, the lights just go on,” Sister Bushman said. “It’s an emotional experience to be able to find those people.”

BYU will host its 49th annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy July 25-28, 2017.

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